Micol Galante, a third culture individual and first-year undergraduate at Sciences Po, reflects on how changing countries can affect one’s sense of identity, belonging and home.
Coming back to Italy this Christmas, after having spent 2 years stuck in Thailand because of Covid restrictions, I thought I would finally feel home after being an expatriate for so long. Yet, when I arrived and went out the first night with my cousins and family friends, I felt just the way I did in Thailand: a “farang”, a Thai expression meaning a foreigner. Everyone was using new codes that I didn’t know, talking about things that had happened when I wasn’t there, and acting in ways I didn’t understand. I felt completely disoriented because it seemed like I had explored a small passage on the side of the main path for a certain period and once I had come back to the road, I was unable to pick up where I had left off. My glossy expectations did not measure up to reality. The world had kept moving while I was gone. A sense of instability started to take over me. I felt like I was never going to be at home anywhere.
Indeed we live in a globalized space, where the benefits are multiple but the crises are also internationalized. We often hear about the financial, geopolitical, health, or ecological ones but identity-related disturbances are often left out. Third Culture Kids (TCK) – children who grew up in a culture different from their parents’ – are more and more frequent and are manifestations of the imbalances of this international system. Many of us in this “international campus” are associated with TCK, having lived in many countries, having several nationalities, or speaking different languages. It can seem desirable and attractive at first, but the popular discourse often forgets TCK’s feelings of confusion regarding their identity and their sense of belonging to any precise culture. Many feel a form of homelessness that comes with all these changes. The impression of never being at home anywhere is real. Being Italian with a French education and having lived in Thailand during my teenage years, coming back to France after 5 years of expatriation, I experienced that deeply. I had a hard time adjusting to what was once supposed to be my home. A sense of awkwardness and a prolonged moment of wonder dissipated into deep suffering. At first, I experienced this upheaval as incomprehensible. I became a stranger to myself, I couldn’t get a grasp of my own identity and I got trapped in these never-ending questions. I’m sure many of you, my readers, went through similar feelings.
Each international student on this campus arrives with their unique history. The confrontation with a new environment devoid of the usual reference points can bring back archaic and buried elements, or create new traumas that can shake up their identities. But what is an “identity”? This question is increasingly present in our time. It is being discussed in political debates, at international summits, and within civil societies. The major upheavals facing our societies, take migration for example, are causing growing concerns, which some may feel is a threat to identity, as we see the rise of nationalism in our political debates. Statuses, roles, and identification models are becoming blurred and the place of each individual is being questioned. “The struggle of places” is replacing “the struggle of classes”. The complexity of the notion of identity is immediately apparent from the dictionary Le Petit Robert, which defines identity as:
- The character of what is identical (similarity)
- Character of what is one (unity)
- Personal identity: character of what remains identical to oneself (permanence)
- The fact that a person is such an individual and can be recognized as such (civil status, identity document…)
Identity concerns both uniqueness and similarity, permanence, and recognition. It has an objective side – our identity card – and a subjective side –the awareness of being oneself, of being unique, and of remaining so throughout one’s life. However, identity’s objective side is more highly regarded than the subjective one, and for TCKs, it is hard to define one given the singularity of their life path.
Despite their uniqueness, there are indeed common features in the experience of those who leave their countries to integrate a new one. Looking at what some friends and myself went through, I believe the experience has several common phases and what is singular to each individual is how they go through the different stages. The phases of the migration could be compared to the periods of a romantic relationship. I have decided to call them: the passionate pre-departure, the honeymoon, the culture shock, the adjustment, and the adaptation.
- The Passionate Pre-Departure
First, there is the pre-departure period in which a strong desire to leave appears well before leaving. In the imagination of those who decide to leave, the host country is represented as an ideal person you definitely need to be with. Throughout the preparation phase, you imagine this perfect person, thus creating a symbolic satisfaction to its desire and providing great energy. Having lived in Thailand, a country with a fierce military dictatorship, France for me represented human rights, an ideal of democracy, and tolerance. Being able to study political science, a field that had long been restricted by the military, was a powerful source of curiosity and motivation for me. Moreover, I studied at the French High School of Bangkok, which was a positive differentiating factor for me and my friends; we felt we had a reasoning power that the other schools did not have. We idealized this very rational aspect of the French dissertation. I must admit that I also thought I would be surrounded by my peers, that I would “come home”, in a place I had lived in before.
- The Honeymoon
Subsequently, comes the “honeymoon”: the encounter with the right person. The new environment is discovered with fascination and curiosity. Even the most trivial actions can be exciting, so great are the differences from the usual reference points. The almost sacred aspect of the “apero” with friends before dinner, the cars stopping when people cross the road, and even the charming rudeness of old people enchanted me. This country corresponded in every detail to the ideal fantasy person. I have always been very attracted to French culture and the importance given to art and literature. French books, movies, and music gave me the impression that I was very close to the country that was going to host me. When I came to France, I felt so grateful to have such high accessibility to the entertainment world; not only by going to the Theatre, the Ballet, the Cinema but also having a wide range of options and not only the American blockbusters there were in Thailand. Therefore, the international student can conclude that this country is perfect. The person feels satisfied with themselves: They are proud of what they have achieved and their sense of self is strengthened by this positive experience. During this period, a multitude of new learnings are at work. We try to integrate the codes of the new culture and look for coherence of new elements with what we already know, through an intuitive logic of non-contradiction. Prior knowledge is supplemented by new elements concerning the external aspects of the culture. For instance, a Thai friend from Bangkok who now lives in Paris, told me: “I spoke French very well when I arrived. But since I have always lived in Thailand, I didn’t know the subtleties of the French language. In France, I learned the different nuances of the ‘tutoiment’ and the ‘vouvoiment’ and the many ways of wishing someone a good day: ‘bonne matinée, bonne fin de matinée, bon après-midi, bonne fin d’après-midi, bonne soirée, bonne fin de soirée’. I wanted to know at what time one should apply this or that formula… I learned that one had to wait for people to get off the metro before others got on; that one had to keep to one’s right at the stairs… all this I didn’t know before coming to live in France. You start to work almost like a sponge trying to absorb all the elements of the new culture to better mimic it.”
- The Culture Shock
However, gradually, a form of routine settles into your life. By wanting to integrate too much into this new culture you start to forget and devalue your previous experiences. The initial fascination begins to fade and weariness takes its place. Stress and fatigue result in a feeling of physical and mental exhaustion. Cultural differences come to the fore. Gradually, a feeling of strangeness about the new culture appears. Everyday challenges seem insurmountable. This is the “culture shock” that you can also experience when you start to get to know your pattern better. The person feels disoriented and may experience great emotional distress. Symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, and loss of appetite may appear. In the culture shock phase, the international student’s feeling of loneliness is exacerbated because his or her system of meaning is inoperative. The person thus experiences a strong feeling of strangeness towards themselves; the continuity and coherence of their identity are disrupted. When I went through this around mid-November, I no longer recognized myself. I didn’t want to go out or do anything. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I needed to go home, to see my friends, my family, to find my benchmarks to regain my strength. But the problem was that I didn’t know where to go. My parents were no longer in Thailand but were moving between Milan and Turin, my brother was living in Paris and my best friends were spread out all across Europe. I didn’t have a “home” to go to which could bring me some stability and where I could feel in my comfort zone. The unconscious implementation of prior strategies does not obtain the expected reactions from other people. New relational experiences characterized by a lack of adjustment with the new culture are experienced as painful. You constantly feel rejected and judged. A powerful feeling of failure and powerlessness as well as a feeling of guilt takes hold of the person. You have finally realized your dream of traveling and yet you do not feel well. You start to devalue yourself and feel the harshness of your internal parent who keeps telling you that you are really incapable.
- The Adjustment and Adaptation
Nevertheless, with time and experience, the TCKs gradually find a certain balance in their new life. You start to adapt to the person you fell in love with in the first place. The mastery of cultural codes, the creation of new reference points, and the establishment of intimate relationships contribute to creating a new attachment to the host country. You begin to experience a sense of security in the host culture and the unconscious fear of rejection is reduced. This releases energy stuck in over-adaptation. For my part, I started to realize that okay I know perfectly neither the French, nor the Italian culture, even less so the Thai one, but I knew a lot of the three. I maybe don’t have a deeper vision but a broader one and this was an asset, not something to be denied. I remembered what I had said during my Sciences Po interview: I was someone who had the chance to be exposed to very different cultures and meet people from all over the world. Thanks to these travels, I have had the extraordinary privilege of developing different perspectives and lenses on what is going on in the world, which forced me to constantly challenge my own assumptions and prejudices and made me capable of putting myself in someone’s shoes in order to work on what might be the best way to move forward jointly.
To try to erase their sense of confusion, I think a TCK needs to identify the positive aspects of each culture, accept differences and experience them as richness. In that way, they can have a broader interpretative capacity of their social experiences to allow them to adapt while maintaining their integrity. Consequently, host cultures can find their place in their identity, which becomes multicultural.
Even though it may hurt in the short term, expatriation is a long journey abroad that profoundly changes a person. We can take an example from one of the birthplaces of our civilization: the Greeks. In his fabulous journey of the Odyssey, which takes him from Ithaca to Troy, from Circe to Polyphemus, from Calypso to the Sirens – a thousand dangers, a thousand tricks, and a thousand discoveries on his way, a mythological figure of the stranger – Ulysses moves from the familiar to the foreign in search of a new identity and recognition. In a way, all the international students of this campus are little Ulysses. However, one question remains: Is our home wherever our Penelope and the people we love are, or is it the journey to find ourselves?